The Polish government was swift to introduce tough measures on the coronavirus – but not to postpone a presidential election it thinks it will win.
The coronavirus epidemic arrived relatively late to Poland, whereupon the government quickly imposed sweeping measures, including social distancing. The infection curve seems to be somewhat flattened compared to most European countries, but it remains unclear if this is thanks to the government’s speedy reaction or merely due to insufficient testing. The crisis is very likely to impact on the upcoming presidential election – which the government appears reluctant to postpone.
On 8 March there came into effect a series of budgetary, epidemiological, and administrative measures backed by parliament. They were followed on 12 March by government decisions to shut down schools, universities, and cultural venues. On 15 March, borders were closed and further social distancing measures gradually implemented. These steps were met with general approval and, so far, compliance is strong. However, the measures are blunt instruments and it is unclear if the Polish state has the capacity to eventually adopt a more agile and sophisticated strategy similar to that of South Korea.
The corona crisis is affecting Poland in three key ways.
Firstly, in terms of emergency preparedness, the Polish health system is still facing the same old issues. Hospitals are running out of essential medical equipment, and some were suffering from lack of supplies even before the coronavirus emerged. Several of the hospitals specifically designated for treating people infected with coronavirus are reporting critical shortages of the equipment and supplies necessary to fulfil this task. Staff shortages have plagued Polish healthcare for a long time, with doctors and nurses emigrating in search of better wages and working conditions. These are likely to be aggravated by forced quarantines and exhaustion.
The relatively low number of tests is also a problem. Despite the World Health Organization’s exhortations to increase testing, only about 11,000 tests have been carried out in Poland, while hundreds of people with symptoms remain without clear diagnosis. To put this in perspective, there have been 2,000 and 5,000 tests per one million people in Italy and South Korea respectively. But in Poland this number stands at 290.
Secondly, coronavirus has struck during the run-up to the presidential election on 10 May. This currently favours the incumbent, Andrzej Duda, who is now able to ride on the coattails of the government’s response. He can campaign under the guise of crisis management while his rivals are more or less forced to suspend campaigning. Duda is now poised to win, perhaps even in the first round. It remains to be seen, however, if this boost will last as the crisis unfolds. If there is a surge of infections, it is likely to overload the already-stretched healthcare system, hurting Duda’s support. Even now the opposition and the media are criticising the government and, by association, the incumbent president for not ordering enough tests.
Opposition and media are criticising the government and incumbent president for not ordering enough tests
The government has so far avoided declaring a state of emergency, as this would force the postponement of the election – an omission strongly criticised by the opposition as irresponsible and unfair. Furthermore, there are serious doubts about whether some of the measures implemented are even constitutional outside a state of emergency. It is likely that the decision to declare it will be dictated by electoral considerations, as the call lies solely with the government.
Thirdly, the epidemic and the steps taken by the government in response will harm the economy, possibly leading to a recession if the restrictions continue beyond the second quarter. Most analysts still anticipate overall growth in 2020, but there are outliers, including Morgan Stanley forecasting a 3.6-5.6 percent contraction. On 18 March, the government announced a package of fiscal and banking measures to the tune of around €50 billion, including contributions to salary payments, loan guarantees, healthcare and infrastructure spending, as well as deposit protection and liquidity injections. Various administrative, tax, and social security deadlines have also been extended. These measures might dampen the shock, prevent loss of liquidity and preserve economic capacity, but the government has limited fiscal space to maintain them should the crisis persist and tax receipts fall.
The economic burden will be shared very unevenly, with some sectors, such as the hospitality industry and passenger transport, in a tailspin while others maintain growth. The self-employed and people working on so-called ‘trash contracts’, with no sick leave or annual leave, will be hit especially hard. Migrants, including over one million Ukrainians, are increasingly in a double bind, at particular risk of losing their jobs, and with it their work visas, yet unable to leave Poland to return to their countries of origin.
As Caroline de Gruyter notes, in atomised societies individuals turn to the state for protection in times of crisis. This mechanism has played out in Poland, with the government making a show of its decisiveness and agency. Both Duda and the prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, have claimed that Poland is fending for itself with little help from the European Union. However, while the government’s swiftness of reaction was commendable, the tools used will prove increasingly costly, hurting the economy and stranding the most vulnerable, be it the Polish ‘precariat’, Ukrainian migrants, or Estonian truck drivers stuck at the border. Sophistication, planning, and coordination with European partners will be required to move beyond lockdown and develop a sustainable strategy to fight the epidemic without killing the patient.
Ignacy Klimont contributed to this article.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.